South Orange-Maplewood School District Interim Supt. Dr. Thomas Ficarra appeared before the Maplewood Township Committee at its Wednesday meeting, to provide the governing body with a summary of what Ficarra has learned since he began his tenure in August, and what his priorities are moving forward.
The top two? Changing the district’s organizational structure to improve its operation, and taking a close look at — and making some difficult decisions about — SOMSD’s aging, overcrowded facilities.
In introducing Ficarra, Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker noted that the presentation was part of an effort between the district and the Maplewood and South Orange governments to better collaborate moving forward. Dr. Ficarra is scheduled to do a similar presentation soon to the South Orange Board of Trustees.
Baker said Ficarra began his tenure with a “robust mandate” from the BOE that asked him to review every aspect of operations, communications, board governance, and facilities planning, and to implement the equity and access policy. She lauded Ficarra for bringing a “tremendous amount of energy” to building leaders.
For his part, Ficarra commended the board for being willing to “rock the boat” and shake things up. “They said in effect, ‘tell us the truth and set us up on the right course.'”
He cited six key areas where he is focusing his work:
- Technology: The district recently hired Keith Bonds as the first Director of Information Technology. The job previous had been done by the Business Administrator Paul Roth.” A district this size needs a full time technology director,” Ficarra said.
- Curriculum: After evaluating the curriculum, Ficarra has found “areas of weakness” he plans to address. He mentioned providing improved professional development for teachers, and stressed the importance of improving data collection to better inform teachers’ everyday lesson planning.
- Cultural competency: This goes along with implementing the Access & Equity policy. Ficarra noted that much of this work was done before he began the job, and his mandate is to make sure it continues.
- Community Engagement
- Operations and Organizational Structure
Ficarra said that shortly after taking the helm, “it became clear to me that that the organization was not functioning at its maximum capacity.” He changed the organizational chart so that each principal now reports directly to him as opposed to subject supervisors. He wanted the “hands-on, daily contact” with building leaders, and for them to come directly to him with issues and problems.
See the previous organizational chart here:
See the new chart at the end of this document here:
The change “has been paying pretty big dividends already.” His vision of a central office is a place where everyone is working to support the students and the schools. “Our job is to give the schools what we need… not necessarily to give them more paperwork,” he said. “Instead of them working for us we are working to support them.”
The other key area is facilities, and Ficarra identified two major problems: overcrowding and “decades of neglect.”
Over the summer, the number of parents who came to the office “shaken” and feeling “duped” that there was no room in school districts they had just bought a house in, reached a “crisis proportion.”
He also said the portable classrooms at some elementary schools were at the end of their usable life span.
Meanwhile, enrollment is steadily rising, Ficarra said. “The trend is up for 6 years or more and there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight.” SOMA’s popularity is a double-edged sword: “This is a hot neighborhood to come [to] and people are coming.” He said the district would be doing some “reconfiguration” to deal with the “de facto segregation” that exists at some of the elementary schools and secondary schools. While he was not specific, he said that “programming would be used” and that an analysis of any reconfiguring or redistricting “would not be done in a vaccum.”
Ficarra was blunt about the state of the district’s buildings: “[They’re] in terrible shape.” Millions of dollars alone are needed to address what he termed “health and safety issues,” including repairing windows and crumbling ceilings, electrical work, boilers, roofs, and asbestos removal.
However, after 40 years of experience in school administration, Ficarra is pragmatic and keenly aware of taxpayer burden. “I don’t want to be looking at people and saying we need a new clock tower” at Columbia High School. “I want to focus on health and safety.”
He said the administration will develop plans with the taxpayer in mind – “I can’t stress that enough. I’ve been around long enough not to come to you with pie in the sky and ‘like-to-haves’ and dreams…I need to bring it down to what we really need to spend money on — because you are going to spend that money anyway” when a boiler breaks or another emergency arises.
The administration will present budget options to the Board of Education within the next few months, and will hold public forums before holding a final vote. To pay for the improvements, the district will be asking for bonding.
“I’m just depressed now,” said Deputy Mayor Nancy Adams, noting that the needed work would require a great deal of money. She asked about raising outside and foundation money. Ficarra said that was a possibility for some of the things that would be “nice to have” — but few foundations or companies are eager to donate for more practical things like a new boiler.
Baker said she hoped the change in Trenton, with the election of a new governor, would mean additional state aid and capital construction funding. “We need to be ready to apply for that money.” She also said the board was actively seeking new properties (she noted they were unsuccessful with trying to acquire Marylawn), and said that Mayor Vic DeLuca had provided a tip on a vacant property to investigate.
Rather than “depressed,” DeLuca said he was “impressed, by your experience, commitment, willingness to tackle these issues. They’ve been around for a while and BOE is looking for direction from you.” He continued, “We’ve talked a lot about equity in this election process…people are looking for us to step up and figure this out. We need to do this together.”